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City School Officials Get Up Head of Steam

Looking beyond the hard problems, many now focus on broader approaches and are determined to make them work. URBAN EDUCATION

FACED with enormous problems, ranging from high dropout rates and drug abuse to low test scores and teen pregnancies, many urban school officials have long assumed that the success of every child is an impossibility. But now there are signs of a new willingness to try broader approaches and indications of determination to make them work.

Frank Newman, president of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, for instance, says he notices ``a sea change'' in the attitude of many once-defensive urban school boards and superintendents.

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Need to pull together

In addition, he sees a new readiness on their part to take on the full range of problems and to change the way they deal with them. ``It's a very different and very refreshing attitude,'' he says.

``I think we now know enough about what has to be done, even in the most difficult inner-city schools,'' says Mr. Newman. ``There are all kinds of experiments and pilot projects. The question is how we muster things together in some coherent way, change the way we do things, and get on with it.''

Joint strategies adopted

Just this month in Washington, D.C., officials of 46 urban school systems and 73 national groups, including community, civil rights, business, and children's organizations, adopted a detailed series of joint strategies to improve city schools.

Included are six urban school goals for the year 2000, including high school graduation rates comparable to the national average, qualified teachers who are ``culturally and racially sensitive,'' and schools that are safe, well maintained, and free of drugs.

Academic strategies to reach those goals include developing more alternatives to standardized tests (often criticized as biased against minorities), greater emphasis on a strong core curriculum, and structural changes such as an end to tracking of students by ability and other moves that automatically limit potential progress.

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One key aspect of the new consensus on city schools is a commitment by those dealing with the education, health, and social welfare of children to join hands in a more united effort to help.

``We can't solve the problems alone,'' says Samuel Husk, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, the group that convened the recent urban education summit.

``We need to become partners to overcome the barriers between institutions that serve the same children and families. They need to be nurtured and to feel that the school, the teachers, and other professionals are there to serve them. The whole basis of urban education has to become one of service. . . .''

Upgrading curriculum content is also a vital part of the academic effort, says Mr. Husk. School systems in Norfolk, San Diego, Oakland, and Denver, he notes, now require a core curriculum of two years of math and two years of science by the end of the sophomore year. Putting these requirments in the first two years gives every student a fairer opportunity to head in the direction he or she then chooses.

How well students work together and the teacher's view of how much progress each student makes in the classroom is often more important than test scores. ``We're going to have to have measures of how students are doing that are more related to what we really want students to know,'' says Mr. Newman.

Teacher assessment crucial

``The assessment the teacher makes is the one that is really crucial,'' says Mr. Husk. He notes that heavy reliance on test scores in the past has automatically forced many students to be held back to repeat grades, a setback that can have devastating effects. He points to studies that show that only 25 percent of black males held back in any of the first three grades are likely to graduate.

Moving to new ways of providing services and measuring student performance will require both courage and more willingness to take risks on the part of urban school officials, says Mr. Husk.

One of the biggest challenges, he continues, will be to sell the validity of the new method to parents, the public, and legislators.

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